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How Two Miniature Horses are Helping Tackle One Big Learning Issue in New Mexico

Two miniature horses and a girl reading a book

“There are two New Mexicos,” says Liz Delfs.

“The one with nice shops, great restaurants.”

“And the other one, with one of the lowest literacy rates, the highest high school dropout rate, and an epic war against drugs.”

Liz is the global legal head of accessibility for Pearson, working to ensure the company helps its customers meet their legal obligations to students with disabilities. She’s an expert in this area, starting her career years ago representing children with special needs in the Boston area.

When she’s not at the office, Liz works to fight illiteracy in her home state in a very unexpected way.

“In my desire to support those in need, I was overlooking my own town.”

Where It Began

Before relocating to New Mexico last year, Liz and her husband Gary lived in Newburgh, New York.

Liz was online one night, contemplating an international donation through Kiva, a non-profit organization that allows people to lend money to low-income entrepreneurs in over 80 countries. In 2015, every Pearson employee was given $25 in Kiva credit to make a donation of their choice.

“I was about to make my gift to a country far away when a lightbulb came on,” Liz recalls. “In my desire to support those in need, I was overlooking my own town.”

Despite its small population, Newburgh is the murder capital of the state.

“I decided to re-focus my energy on tackling issues in my community.”

Liz and Gary soon moved to Santa Fe.

“My community changed, but my desire to help didn’t,” she says.

Liz got one step closer to her goal through an unplanned encounter…with miniature horses.

Hot Dog and Thor

A Chance Encounter

Liz describes her first experience with miniature horses this way:

“Gary and I were driving through Texas.”

“From the car, we saw them alongside the road. I’d never seen one before, but wasn’t interested. There are a lot of horses in Texas.”

“When Gary turned the car around, I rolled my eyes.”

“But when he finally convinced me to get out and give the horses a chance…wow.”

“I know it’s crazy. But I was smitten, and I promised myself they were going to be in my life someday.”

“I promised myself they were going to be in my life someday.”

It didn’t take Liz long to make that happen.

She and Gary adopted two 300-lb. miniature horses from a woman in nearby Albuquerque who trained them as show horses.

“One had a funny gait, and the other’s heart just wasn’t in it,” Liz laughs, remembering the former owner’s disappointment.

“I started thinking about what the horses could do,” Liz says.

She was still working for Pearson on major accessibility issues for students with disabilities, and knew about the unusually high illiteracy rates in New Mexico.

A new lightbulb went off in her head.

“These horses can listen.”

“My community changed, but my desire to help didn’t.”

My Little Horse Listener

Enter Thor and Hot Dog.

In Santa Fe, Liz and Gary run My Little Horse Listener, a literacy program that uses the two horses as “listeners” for children who are not comfortable or confident reading aloud to others.

Children bond with the horses, building skills and confidence at the same time.

“I can’t explain why, but there’s a connection between them,” Liz says.

“I think, in the same way children who struggle with reading attract attention at school, miniature horses have a sense they stick out in the horse world, and not always in a good way.”

Small People, Little Horses

Liz’s first student, a nine-year-old girl, had a somewhat strange experience.

“The horses weren’t as well-trained as they are now. They nudged her and the book she was reading,” Liz says.

“But they stayed by her side until the end, and you could see she developed a new confidence in just those few minutes.”

Since then, the program has evolved, and many student readers have been referred by community teachers.

Liz and Gary are focused on expansion. They’ve trained Thor and Hot Dog to climb steps and ride in horse trailers.

A reader and a listener.

A reader and a listener.

“We’ve started doing field trips. This way, we can help a whole class of children at the same time,” says Liz.

Looking Ahead

The local paper in Santa Fe recently wrote a story about Liz’s and Gary’s unique efforts to tackle illiteracy problems in New Mexico.

It helped Liz reflect on her unusual journey—from New York and child advocacy work, to New Mexico and her horse training labor of love.

“Various parts of my life just came together,” Liz says. “I can’t solve the drug crisis. I can’t fight the cartels. But I can give these children and horses a few hours of happiness.”

“Various parts of my life came together. I can’t solve the drug crisis. I can’t fight the cartels. But I can give these children and horses a few hours of happiness.”

Liz and Thor at home in Santa Fe.

For more information on My Little Horse Listener, visit their website. You can also email Thor and Hot Dog at ThorandHotDog@gmail.com.